JON CARDINELLI writes the architect of the Stormers and Western Province rugby revival has left a gaping hole with his forced resignation.
Most people will focus on a trophy cabinet devoid of major titles, but they need to remember that there was a time where the Stormers battled to finish mid-table let alone contend for the play-offs. Those dark days weren’t too long ago, and it’s largely thanks to Rassie Erasmus that the Cape side and its supporters now hold such high standards.
The Stormers are one of South Africa’s biggest and richest teams and have been blessed with a number of talented international players over the years. But make no mistake, in the period before Erasmus arrived, they were more rags than riches, more flash than substance. Their Super Rugby log finishes in the years of 2006 (11th) and 2007 (10th) confirm as much, and it was always going to be difficult for the next coach to effect a turnaround.
Against the odds, Erasmus enjoyed immediate success. The Stormers narrowly missed out on a semi-final place in the 2008 Super 14, but the season was hailed as a massive improvement. They occupied more familiar territory (10th on the log) in the 2009 Super 14, but were back on track in 2010 where they qualified for their first Super Rugby final. While they only made it as far as the semis in the revamped 15-team competition in 2011, they claimed a consolation prize in the form of the South African conference trophy, an accolade that affirmed their status as the best side in South Africa.
During his four-year stint, Erasmus made a number of decisions that ultimately aided the Stormers’ rise as a South African superpower. He brought about a culture change, as well as more structure, to a Cape side in dire need of both. He brought Jacques Nienaber, his former conditioning coach at the Cheetahs, down to Cape Town and eventually installed Nienaber as the defence coach. The Stormers proceeded to become the best defensive unit in the competition in 2010 and 2011. At one stage, Erasmus contracted mixed martial arts expert Omar Mouneimne (who recently served as Italy’s defence coach) as a collisions coach in an effort to lift the Stormers’ physicality. As was the case with their defence, the Stormers showed a marked improvement in this facet of play.
Erasmus’s value as a guru on matters of a technical nature has never been in doubt. He was used by Jake White in 2007 as a technical advisor before he turned his attention to his post at the Stormers. He was again recognised as a crucial member of the Springbok management team when Peter de Villiers came calling in early 2011. He was able to implement significant changes such as introducing Nienaber and his methods to the Bok template, and one wonders what could have been accomplished at the 2011 World Cup had Erasmus been incorporated at an earlier stage.
The official line from WP is that Erasmus has left the union because he wants to pursue other coaching opportunities, but keo.co.za understands that he has endured one too many clashes with the union’s administrators and is fed up with the amateurish manner in which the union is run. Some administrators will feel that Erasmus’s resignation is a sign of victory, but ultimately Cape rugby is the biggest loser. The Stormers and WP will certainly be worse off without his technical expertise and innovation.
The side has already been weakened by the loss of Francois Louw. There is no other player at the union capable of playing that fetching role which is so integral to their defensive game plan. Their attacking ambitions have also been jeopardised by Jaque Fourie, top-scorer for the Cape franchise in 2010 and 2011, signing with a Japanese club. But to lose Erasmus, the man responsible for their dramatic rise from mediocre pretenders in 2007 to perennial contenders in 2010 and 2011 – how can the union suggest that his leaving the Stormers and WP is anything other than a catastrophe?
The region has been robbed of one of South Africa’s great rugby brains. There may be life after Rassie Erasmus, but unfortunately for the Stormers and WP, it won’t be as good.